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3 Clubgoers Overdose on Illegal drug GHB
by Bill Duryea
Oct 2, 1996
St Petersburg Times
TAMPA - The dance floors at the Parthenon nightclub were crowded with more than 1,000 people Monday night when someone approached Vanessa Rugys and asked whether she and her two friends wanted to try a new drug.

One dose for $5, the person said, producing an eye dropper. Then the person placed one or two drops on their tongues, police said.

"Almost immediately, they went into convulsions and loss of consciousness," said Tampa police Capt. K.C. Newcomb.

The song Come On Eileen was playing about 1:30 a.m. as bouncers carried the three people, all in their 20s, off the dance floor to the sidewalk outside, where paramedics tried to revive them.

They were taken to Tampa General Hospital, where they were treated for overdoses of the substance GHB (short for gamma hydroxybutyrate), an obscure but increasingly popular drug on the nightclub scene. GHB has been linked to the death of a 17-year-old volleyball player in Texas, as well as dozens of overdoses in Florida and California.

"We got very lucky that somebody didn't die," said Rob Pittman, manager of the Parthenon and the disc jockey for the club's '80s music night on Mondays. "That girl came close. Her breathing was way too slow and irregular."

The Parthenon was the scene in September 1995 of a much-publicized raid that shut down the club's after-hours "rave" party and resulted in the arrests of 13 people on drug possession and other charges.

On Tuesday, Rugys, 25, of 220 Columbia Drive on Davis slands, was listed in serious but stable condition in the hospital's intensive care unit. So was Nicholas E. Calderelli of Holiday. Jason M. Dobbins of Orlando was in fair condition.

Officials fear the re-emergence of a deadly substance that first appeared locally at the beginning of the decade.

In 1990, local hospitals reported about 17 cases of GHB overdoses, according to Dr. Sven Normann, executive director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa. Those cases were reported to the authorities in Washington who had learned simultaneously of similar incidents in California. Those reports led to a ban by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the time, GHB could be purchased at health food stores. Bodybuilders favored the naturally occurring substance because they believed that by mixing the powder in water they could strip away fat while promoting muscle growth.

Word got out that GHB produces euphoria, increased sensitivity to touch and drowsiness, thereby appealing to people looking for a legal alternative to the drug Ecstasy. It was even hyped as an aphrodisiac.

There is a significant drawback to GHB, Normann said. It tends to cause breathing problems. And when it is combined with alcohol or any other depressant, the problems increase "synergistically," Normann said. "One plus one doesn't equal two. One plus one equals five." The result? Vomiting, seizures, loss of bladder control and amnesia. Most worrisome is a radically slow breathing rate that can put someone in a coma.

Though illegal, GHB can be acquired by mail-order from Mexico. There are recipes on the Internet and in alternative magazines, according to Capt. Bruce Ashley of the state division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

It is not clear where the GHB came from Monday night. Police have a description of the person who sold it based on a witness' statement, but officials would not release the information. Pittman said Tuesday he did not think the sale occurred in the club, which remains open Mondays and Saturdays. Since the raid in 1995, he has worked to keep drugs out of the club, he said.

"We changed the music. We don't even play music for that crowd," Pittman, 32, said, referring to the people who frequented the rave dances that began at 3 a.m.

The club owners still must attend a hearing in front of state regulators concerning drug deals that were done by undercover officers during last September's raid, Ashley said. And if officials discover that sales of GHB were occurring on the premises without interference by the club's owners, new charges may be added, Ashley said.

Times librarian Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

©Copyright 1996 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.